All she could feel was pain. The pain of walking through a historic capital leveled by nature. The pain of hearing screams from beneath the rubble. The pain of knowing an inhumane force — racism — made the tragedy worse.
Afro-Dominican activist Sergia Galvan traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, just one day after the earth shook to look for her sisters in arms.
They were lost, the sisters whom for years she worked with to heal the rifts of anti-Haitianism in her native Dominican Republic, a gulf rooted in the violent history and deep racism of their shared island. As a Black Dominican feminist, she is part of a growing Latin American movement that affirms Black identity against the antagonism of negrophobic and so-called color-blind societies.
But in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti last month, an outpouring of compassion from the Spanish-speaking neighbor transcended those tensions, with the Dominican Republic becoming the first nation to respond to Haiti’s cry for help.
“The Dominican Republic is a racist nation with deep anti-Haitian sentiments, and it has amazed me to see the solidarity of the Dominican people and to see them transcend that part of themselves,” says Galvan, whose organization, The Women and Health Collective, is working to provide medical help in border hospitals. “I hope this is symbolic of a step forward toward breaking down the racial barriers and xenophobic views of Dominicans toward Haitians.”
Though they share heritage and language, the relationship between Black Latin Americans and their lighter compatriots is marred by historical denial, discrimination and denigration.
Negrophobia — or the contempt of blackness — has a long and ugly legacy in Latin American and Caribbean countries, where 90 percent of the approximately 10 million enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were taken. Only 4.6 percent were brought to the U.S.
Although Latin American peoples are generally of mixed heritage, experts say the historical emphasis on mestizaje — or the doctrine of miscegenation — obscures a divisive system that prefers Whiteness to Blackness. In practice, not all parts of the mixture are equally appreciated, and some are scorned, says Tanya Hernandez, a law professor at the Fordham University School of Law.
“I think what is traditionally viewed as distinctive in Latin America is this notion of fluid racial identity that people can identify how they want. But the way people are encouraged to identify is away from Blackness,” says Hernandez, who is writing a book on the subject. “The hierarchy is left unchallenged because everyone is busy denying it.”
The one-drop-of-White-blood rule determined a person’s color and status south of the U.S. border.
“Under mestizaje, you don’t have to be White in order to racialize each other. All you need to be is Whiter than the next guy,” says Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, an associate English professor and director of the Latino-Latin American Studies Program at Syracuse University. “It robs us of the horrific vision of distinct racialized groups, and so it is very difficult to fight racism under mestizaje because you have lost your ground.”
Underneath the guise of racial harmony, the realities of the society’s racial stratification continue to isolate Black people in Latin America and provoke the negation of Blackness among Afro-Latinos and Latin Americans in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“The United States had something (that) few countries in the history of the world have had,” Torres-Saillant says. “It had the unprecedented civil rights movement, which changed the racial scenario discursively and intellectually. There has never been anything like that in Latin America.”
But since the 1980s, pockets of resistance have emerged among African-descended populations demanding equal rights and representation from the Americas, where more than a third of the population is Black, researchers have found.
In 1991, nearly 150 years after slavery was abolished there, the Colombian Constitution officially recognized Afro-Colombians and provided some land rights. Last year, Bolivia legally recognized Afro-Bolivians, acknowledging their community for the first time in the constitution. In Oaxaca, Mexico, African-descended popular movements have garnered both economic development and political rights for the people. Both the United Nations and Organization of American States have special envoys to address the issues of Black Latin Americans.
Today, activists like Galvan, who coordinated the first hemispheric meeting of African-descended Latin American women in 1992, push for increased recognition from those in power and among Black Latin Americans themselves. Progress, they say, is slow.
“That is the problem of identity. If they don’t consider themselves Black, how will they help these organizations? If people don’t think they are Black, they will never reclaim their rights,” Galvan says. “The evidence is there in communities throughout Latin America. Blacks show the worst indicators of inequalities. We have the lowest indicators in terms of education. We have the biggest health problems and live in dire poverty.” For those reasons, Galvan blames skin color for the poverty, corruption and international neglect that magnified the tragedy in Haiti.
The largest Afro-Latino population lives in Brazil, but nearly 70 percent of them live in extreme poverty, according to a 2008 Congressional report. Likewise in Esmeralda, Ecuador, Afro-Latinos have infant mortality rates double the national average, and only 15 percent of children older than 18 have completed school as compared with the average 23 percent of the nation. The Garifunas of Honduras, the small Black population, is more at risk of HIV/AIDS infection because 8 percent are already infected.
In the Dominican Republic, the denial of Blackness is intertwined with its history.
“Dominicans have a complicated relationship with their Blackness. They affirm it one way but also seem to deny it in other ways,” Torres-Saillant says. “You find an affirmation of a Black/African heritage in the same person who will use a negrophobic term when insulting someone.”
Between the 1930s and 1960s, dictator Rafael Trujillo persuaded the Dominican population to excise all references to a Black or African identity in their culture. Several clashes with Haiti further bolstered anti-Black sentiment.
Dr. Ginetta Candelario, an associate professor in sociology and Latin American and Latina/o studies at Smith College who is Dominican, says Black negation is not about denying skin color but refusing to identify with social burdens tied to Blackness.
“If there is a clear linkage between Blackness, disadvantage and exclusion, then what incentive is there to embrace a Black identity?” Candelario says. “In reality, it’s a rejection of the imputed disadvantages of Blackness. You will see a person saying ‘Yo no soy negro’ (I’m not Black) because, if they accept being called Black, they feel they are opening the door to others treating them as less than human and as less entitled to all the social goods that are hoarded for Whites and those closest to Whites.”
For Afro-Latinos to say their African-ness is insignificant, Hernandez says, hinders them “from being able to confront the obstacles in (their) way. When you’re busy doing this denying, you then remove from yourself a tool of empowerment: actual acknowledgement of the existence of racism.”
Candelario, author of the book Black Behind the Ears about the denial of Blackness in the Dominican Republic, sees a shift in attitude and perception as scholarship and activism grow among Black Latinos.
“There is this pushing back of Blackness and tucking it behind the ear so it’s not in your face,” she says. “But, on the other hand, the fact that we constantly say that means we are accepting we are negro. It’s part of (whom) we are. It is there whispering to me all the time. I’m not going to forget it.”